The recent news that ResearchGate had secured a $52.6 million Series D investment raised many eyebrows. When two other details emerged, brows became fixed as if by Botox — the funding had occurred in 2015 and was only being divulged to satisfy a German tax regulation, and the investors included Bill Gates, Goldman Sachs, and, yes, the Wellcome Trust.

car crash

These are all big-money names, even though Wellcome may not initially seem to be in the same league as Gates and Goldman Sachs. Wellcome itself has £20.9B in the bank. In 2016, Wellcome earned an astonishing 18.8% return on its investments, or £3.5B, only about 20% of which was distributed (£749 million). Wellcome is an investment dynamo that is getting bigger every year.

There is a long tradition of funders helping publishers conduct research, start public-spirited publishing initiatives, and make the works they publish more widely available. But recently, funders have been pushing into publishing with competitive offerings and investments, a decided change from their traditional role of funding research and letting journals and publishers do their jobs independently.

Wellcome is perhaps the most aggressive, with eLife being their most prominent publishing adventure, followed more recently by Wellcome Open Research. Multiple funders with OA mandates also intrude on the publishing marketplace, with the goal of making research publications free to all readers as soon as possible. The Gates Foundation has been the most adamant about compliance among its funded authors, leading to a standoff with multiple top journals, one that may have found a path to resolution with AAAS/Science‘s deal to receive $100,000 this year to support publication of Gates Foundation-funded articles in any of its subscription journals.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s (CZI) acquisition of Meta removed a commercial entity from the market, shifting competitive dynamics for many organizations — some positively, some negatively.

What has led to this new activism by funders and philanthropies with regard to researchers and publishers?

The NLM and NCBI continue to use their position to compete with publishers, adding responsive and tablet capabilities, new article recommendation tools, and, most recently, image searching. Meanwhile, despite saying they are not a publisher, they continue to publish for two organizations.

What has led to this lane-changing behavior from funders and philanthropies with regard to researchers, technology, and publishers? Why are they moving into the publishing world with competitive attitudes? Why are they seeking to define publication choices for their funded researchers?

There seems to be a few contributing factors.

  • Belief in technology. The Gates Foundation is an organization formed by a family whose fortune was earned at Microsoft. The CZI has a similar legacy via Facebook. Wellcome, for its part, has been on record celebrating what it views as the lower costs and new capabilities of digital publishing, which its leadership has concluded should allow for new approaches to publishing. This same belief that technology changes everything seems to inform many of the open access (OA) mandates coming from other funders, including HHMI and Max Planck. The common argument that scholarly publishers are protectionist dinosaurs certainly plays a part in this thinking. Therefore, as investors, Gates, Wellcome, and CZI certainly believe that if they can bring new technology to the space, they can make it better.
  • Antagonism. Observers of scientific and scholarly publishing over the past 15-20 years could be forgiven for internalizing a certain disdain for the main players, and some mistaken beliefs. The profits of some large multinationals, the tin ear our industry has sometimes shown, and our inherent inability to talk about what we do have all contributed to a feeling that something is amiss. The vast diversity of the ecosystem goes unseen by most, being distilled in Silicon Valley and popular culture as “Elsevier,” the talismanic name of our industry. Together, these factors have probably fulminated some antagonism, or at least stirred a hero complex.
  • Natural incentives. Funders have a natural incentive to make sure their funding decisions look productive — that is, the funded research gets published, read, and cited. When OA publishing was at its peak of promise, it seemed to align perfectly with these goals. Since then, we’ve learned that the citation advantage was probably illusory, that readership remains difficult to cultivate, and that publication remains a competitive sport for both authors and readers. Nonetheless, these marketing incentives remain, likely leading to investments like ResearchGate, where the purported goal is to turn the publishing shirt inside-out, leaving ResearchGate with all the papers of the past and all the audience of the future. Then, publication, readership, and citation (or whatever metrics ResearchGate asserts) could be more controlled, even contrived, to favor funders’ goals.
  • Low investment thresholds. Funders like Wellcome, CZI, and Gates see a market like scholarly and scientific publishing differently — it appears relatively small to them compared to their worldwide mass markets for software, drugs, and social media. Therefore, it doesn’t take much money to dabble in it. This means the risk isn’t high, while the PR and intellectual rewards are immediate, and financial rewards more likely since there’s less money burned up front. The rumored investment in Meta by CZI is probably a day’s over/under for Zuckerberg’s shares of Facebook. The few million for Wellcome or Gates to supercharge ResearchGate for a few years is a blip to them. Yet, for the STM and HSS publishing market, injections of tens of millions of dollars can be destabilizing, especially if these millions are used to drain away established or emerging commercial offerings. For the NLM and NCBI, their technologists are already on the payroll, so there is no marginal cost to putting them to work adopting new and competitive publishing technologies.

These relatively small financial stakes might lead you to think there would be a low level of interest in the outcomes. Yet, the extents to which funders will go to realize a new world order can be impressive.

As I documented a few years ago, Wellcome Trust (via eLife, which was housed on Wellcome property at the time) conspired with the NCBI within the NLM and NIH to give eLife a publishing advantage, using US government taxpayer-paid employees and resources to give a UK funder privileges a normal OA publisher could have only dreamed of, while also creating a sweetheart governance succession plan for Wellcome. Unfortunately, if the rumor mill is accurate, even these machinations and Wellcome’s support may result in just another “me too” journal a few years from now, with APCs and limited differentiation. Perhaps that explains somewhat why Wellcome started Wellcome Open Research?

The Gates Foundation has been willing to foster a public dispute with high-profile journals like Nature, NEJM, and PNAS, to underscore its commitment to CC-BY and Gold OA. The Gates Foundation’s recent deal with AAAS/Science is estimated to cost the Gates Foundation between $6.6K and $10K per published paper. It will be interesting to watch whether this solution (which a Gates Foundation representative describes as “provisional”) is a bellwether for similar deals with other high-profile scientific and medical journals.

Contrast these approaches to spending with other possible investments — in a coalition of professional society publishers to help them compete on the market with the big multinationals; in a reward system for peer reviewers, including financial stipends; or in expanding university press programs. These investments would be supportive, and would not put funders on a collision course with publishers.

These funders — each of whom has a history of jealously guarding its own trademarks, copyrights, and patents — seem willing to tread on others’ intellectual property. Any investment in ResearchGate indicates an ambivalence bordering on disregard for publisher intellectual property. ResearchGate spends much of its marketing bandwidth urging its members to upload articles, despite this likely running afoul of copyright laws. Suspicions run rampant that ResearchGate primes the pump, both with profiles and papers — the platform is notoriously opaque about its conduct. Wellcome itself is living off the legacy of patents and trademarks, the other two legs of the IP stool, so this attitude toward intellectual property seems new or disingenuous, and may reflect a calculated risk that copyright won’t prove to be the Achilles’ heel of ResearchGate.

Wellcome’s investment in ResearchGate seems to indicate an ambivalence bordering on disregard for publisher intellectual property.

Of course, investments themselves aren’t objectionable. Quite the opposite, they can be validating and helpful. What’s different about the investments in publishing by Wellcome and CZI and Gates is that there doesn’t seem to be a clear commercial model for any of them. ResearchGate is, at this point, too well-funded to have a traditional exit — that is, with nearly $100M of investment, it’s far too large to sell at any decent multiple, and with a minimal commercial model based on advertising, it’s not a viable IPO candidate. This means a pivot must be the next move, with the natural expectation being that ResearchGate pivots to become a publisher. This is more difficult than it sounds. Publishers trade in brands, trust, and marketing know-how. ResearchGate may have an advantage in the latter space (albeit marginal), but it does not have parity when it comes to brands or trust. Yet, there is another option — that the funders see a future, via ResearchGate’s captive audience, in which scholarly publishing is run off the proceeds of funders, with no further need for any other commercial model. By virtue of a captive audience, the industry becomes captive as well, via ResearchGate. Funders need only spend a few million dollars every year to make that happen. But the participation of traditional venture funders argues against this potentiality. It’s a confusing investment for every publishing expert I’ve talked with.

Investments predicated on generating a seismic pivot in the academic publishing market may represent a miscalculation on a number of fronts. Scholarly publishing is growing rapidly in terms of articles being published, scientists requiring publication services and outlets, and technical, process, and policy demands. It’s a more complicated market than many realize, and it’s not getting simpler. Transference assumptions around technology experience derived from mass market scale and simple algorithmic approaches will probably break down in translational and emerging spaces, if not beforehand. Scientific and scholarly publishing is about new information, which always challenges technologists as they battle the forefront. The cost of rejection remains a major hidden cost most don’t take into account.

Another miscalculation may be around perceived stability — that is, funders may not realize that there may be one or two Jenga blocks that, if pulled out, could bring major functions of the industry down in a tumble. If professional and scholarly societies suddenly abandon publishing, entire professional strata could suffer major setbacks, causing a rapid depletion of editorial and review person-power. If faith and stability around metrics and transparency falters, the incentives to publish could decrement suddenly, making scientists less eager to submit papers and work their way toward publication. If the major commercial publishers pivot toward technology or aggregation themselves, dropping their commitments to supporting new research publishing, the financial burden on funders could increase 10-100x in a year if they wanted the system to function more or less as-is.

Ultimately, the equilibrium of the system is worth contemplating. On the road, drivers stay in their lanes, or take new lanes carefully, realizing that changing lanes without looking could result in a crash or, worse, a pileup. Rules about when and how to change lanes create an equilibrium that allows everyone to get where they’re going. Funders are crossing lanes — veering into the researcher lane through mandates, into the publishing lane via mandates and investments, and into the technology lane via platform plays. Are they simply inured to what might happen because cars for them seem cheap and accidents easy to walk away from? Or are they trying to own the road for themselves?

Whatever comes, drive carefully, and wear your seatbelt.

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


27 Thoughts on "Collision Course — Why Are Funders Straying from Their Lane?"

There has been a series of efforts in the arena of socially responsible investment where those with the capital are not necessarily seeking to “maximize” the “rent seeking” paths without consideration of the longer term sustainable societal benefits. Thus, investments are made with different criteria and expectations, including differing “exist strategies”, if any. Gates, CZI and Welcome may well have such objectives which are orthogonal to those measures that Kent questions in this article. The same question is now being asked in other investments than publishing.

In the case of CZI, Gates and Welcome, other values may be at play regarding the creation of and access to research in areas of benefit to the planet, writ large. In other words, the return for such investments may not be measurable by the standard return on investments whether seen as capital or operational costs, separate from any discounts offered through such vehicles as tax credits.

As with many other industries that could not see changes in their business models, they became subjects of disruptive alternatives. As the article shows, the amount of investment into alternative paths in the STEM/STM industry is small compared to the capital at the disposal of CZI, Gates and Welcome. This points to the potential for disruption, particularly if the value proposition is orthogonal to the conventional industry’s thinking and thus Kent’s entire argument becomes moot.

The flaw with this idea is two-fold: First, Wellcome has a track record of drawing high returns from its investments, and seems to be interested currently in building up its investment fund; second, while I cite the foundations investing in things like ResearchGate, there are traditional VC and investment funds also involved, and they certainly are looking for a traditional return and exit. In fact, they may be the main investors, as we don’t know who has put in how much. Gates, Wellcome, and others may have only small amounts at risk, and may be riding the coattails of the traditional investors, who will work to ensure the investments deliver returns.

Hi Kent

If, indeed, you are right, then the traditional VC’s see returns in alternatives to the current industry worth the speculative investment and a justification for straying outside of their domain. Thus, the challenge would be to the extant industry to look carefully at its business model as we have seen in other industries. So your concerns should be addressed to the industry itself.

On the other hand, if there are investors who see other than the conventional bottom line, then that to
needs the current industry’s consideration.

Wow. In what way does it make sense for publishers to assume that it is the goal and responsibility of grant funders to sustain publishers’ legacy business models? In a capitalist system it’s the responsibility of a company to adjust to a changing business environment. If your publications aren’t meeting the needs of the organizations that are funding research a better course of action would be to develop new business models that are compatible with their expectations.

There is no assumption like those you’re attributing here. This essay is about noticing a trend, wondering about the drivers of the change, and cautioning that maybe changing lanes isn’t as risk-free or simple as some may think.

I’ll also dispute your notion that there are things called “legacy business models.” There are business models that work or don’t. Those that work for a long time are worth perpetuating because, well, they work. Recent data ( suggest that the site license is not archaic, but actually increasing in its value and utility generally, for example. Since I started in scholarly publishing in the 1990s, publishers have developed and embraced plenty of business models to go beyond the individual subscription model (site licensing, PPV, OA, third-party licensing, jobs ads, display advertising, sponsorship, bundling). To this point, it’s unclear that ResearchGate has any new business model — everything we hear is about it being based on jobs ads.

Ms Mak raises the interesting point that if the trend that Kent detects is real and his analysis of Welcome and other VC’s makes sense, then they must have assessed the costs, risks and benefits whether in a cash return or other non-monetized (at the moment) benefit. Therefore her suggestion is to try to raises their awareness of the risks which they may not understand and to ascertain what they know that needs the current industry’s attention. After all, Kent’s notice about the value of legacy models may represent the same thinking that has lead to disruption of legacy businesses and/or the rise of the new unicorns with far different models, some of which Kent has dismissed in his kindness in warning CZI, Gates and Welcome.

Two questions: 1. Can you explain why STEM publishers have not tried to match the service that ResearchGate provides authors. Or are they doing so and I am unaware?
2. Could investments in OA by Wellcome not be seen as an attempt by a pharmaceutical company to reduce the costs it must have in its research arm in maintaining currency with the literature? And could not investments by Gates and CZI be seen as attempts to demonetize content in favour of monetizing access tools?

Publishers have made attempts at creating services similar to ResearchGate, which provides services to authors and readers. However, the most successful services do seem naturally prone to start outside of publishers, who have a center of gravity around their own content which may limit their freedom of movement. Mendeley was one such service, being bought up by Elsevier once it had achieved a critical mass. ResearchGate is probably already too highly funded for a similar exit. There are other offerings by publishers, but they tend to run into the parochial problem — built for one community or content set, not for the world more broadly.

Wellcome seems to separate its pharma roots (Burroughs-Wellcome, now GlaxoSmithKline) from the foundation. I don’t think they’re using the Wellcome Trust as a lever for GSK.

As for Gates and CZI, I think those motivations run along the spectrum I outlined above — namely, some faith in technology as a solution in and of itself; a sense that something is wrong in the scholarly publishing market, based on the commotion emanating from it; a somewhat ideological idea about how advances in health and science can be drawn from better information management; and an investment threshold that is low enough that it’s easy to dabble.

Publishers have tried to match the services offered by ResearchGate, but as most are reliant on following copyright laws for their main business efforts, they are somewhat hobbled as compared with a company that seems to have little regard for such laws.

I should have been more precise in my question, David. I think authors would be very grateful if journals were to provide a site with an RSS feed that showed the usage of their articles. The advantage publishers have is that they could promote the use of the final published version. Maybe a non-profit organization with journal members could compile usage and inform authors.

Many (most?) journals these days do everything they can to offer authors statistics on usage (downloads), citations and altmetrics. But this is not the service offered authors by ResearchGate.

As multiple studies have shown (linked below), ResearchGate is primarily used for broadcasting and receiving — that is, for authors to show off their CVs and their papers, and for readers to download a free copy of the article.

Nothing wrong with that. If publishers move too slow and funders feel they’re in a good position to overtake them, switching lanes is a perfectly reasonable way of avoiding both collision and lagging behind, is it not?

Well, let’s not overlook the conflict of interest here. Funders have an interest in seeing works they funded published, while journals are supposed to be independently funded so they can make independent evaluations of quality, novelty, and importance.

I can only speak from the perspective of a STEM journal author/reader, but I don’t see the conflict of interest that Kent mentioned. It is true that funders may predominantly publish works that they funded in their own journal, but whether such works will be taken seriously will largely depend on the readership response. On the other hand, there is also quite a bit of garbage in traditional journals (statistical problems, for example), including those sponsored by professional societies. Enough low-quality articles and people in the field will start to look askance at the journal.

Regarding the practice of uploading one’s publications onto ResearchGate, methinks it is a bit of a gray area. In fact, there is one nagging questions in my mind on this issue: Is it illegal for the author(s) to freely upload his/her published journal articles to other outlets (e.g. personal blog) in the STEM field?

Regarding the practice of uploading one’s publications onto ResearchGate, methinks it is a bit of a gray area. In fact, there is one nagging questions in my mind on this issue: Is it illegal for the author(s) to freely upload his/her published journal articles to other outlets (e.g. personal blog) in the STEM field?

I’m not sure it’s that gray of an area. It depends on three things, the specific version of the paper being uploaded, the location where you’re uploading it, and the reuse policies of the journal in which you have published it.

1) Is it the preprint version (the author’s original version, before the journal has done any work on it), the accepted manuscript version (after the journal has done significant work, put the article through the peer review process to the point where it has been accepted), or the version of record (after peer review and post acceptance editing, typesetting, etc.)? The less work the journal has done usually means fewer restrictions on reuse.

2) Are you uploading the paper to your own personal blog? To your personal page on your university’s website? To your university or community’s repository? Or are you uploading it to a commercial site that will use your paper to make money? Many publishers make it clear that ResearchGate, a venture capital backed, for-profit business based on selling advertisements and spying on researchers is considered a commercial reuse, which may require licensing rather than being automatically granted.

3) What are the policies of the journal in which you published the paper? A good starting point is here, which has links to the policies of many publishers/journals:
Did you pay for open access? Is the license CC BY, or CC BY NC (again, remember that ResearchGate is a commercial reuse, so acceptable under CC BY, not under CC BY NC).

Let me outline the conflict of interest. Company A funds research, and also invests in (or owns) a publication outlet. The editors and reviewers know that Company A effectively pays a percentage of their salaries, so when research funded by Company A arrives, while there is no explicit demand on the editors or reviewers, there is a clear path to making everyone happy — that is, accept the paper. This is how editorial thinking becomes compromised. As you note, the conflict cuts both ways, meaning that readers may take the research less seriously if they know that Company A has a thruway from funding to publication, tainting potentially valuable research with a conflict of interest perception. So, the options are two: Good research is tainted by a perception that it’s been published as a favor to some degree, while bad research is elevated perhaps illegitimately to a level it might not have attained without Company A’s investment in the publication outlet.

To your point about “garbage” in traditional journals, that’s a separate problem. I agree, the filters need to be tightened, but as long as funding is almost entirely contingent on publication events, that’s unlikely to happen. The incentives need to change. Publishers can’t change them. Academia and the research community control the incentives; publishers are only a reflection of their decisions and priorities. The entire system is struggling to deal with the gap between increased researcher output and diminished library budgets. As was recently noted (

Through their incentive structures, universities pressure faculty and post-docs to publish more and more. This has resulted in more and more research articles and therefore higher serials costs. And yet library budgets remain flat and are declining as a percentage of university spending (at least at US research universities). Open access is not a solution to this problem — it merely shifts the costs around. We need to move beyond the rhetoric about a “Serials Crisis” and start talking about the elephant in the room, which is either the Library Funding Crisis (LFC) or the Research Bloating Crisis (RBC) depending on your perspective. Either way, the solution lies not in the library or the lab (or in the houses of publishers) but in the provost’s office.

ResearchGate doggedly pursues its users to upload papers, soliciting them relentlessly. There are also suspicions that they use the appearance of user-uploaded content to upload other content that it’s impossible to prove was not uploaded by users, essentially using it as cover for copyright infringement. But, again, these are only suspicions. If ResearchGate actually engaged with the community in a legitimate and open (i.e., academic) manner, we’d know a lot more about what’s going on inside their environment. But time after time, they refuse to interact.

Hmm, I am wondering whether Kent’s original post, rather than a cautionary note to Gates, Welcome and CZI should be seen as a “defensive driving” alert to those currently on the road. So, what are the alternatives?
a) hold steady on the current path as those coming down the lane will falter and drop back?
b) hold steady and let these upstarts pass and eventually run themselves off the road
c) look at the instrument panel and decide that the “rent seeking” investors can secure longer term returns with the appropriate response of going with the apparent change in traffic flow.

In driving parlance, most experts and some law officials recognizing the dangers of obstinate following of the posted limits, suggest going with the flow for the benefit of all.

Perhaps this might be the “take away” from Kent’s message by a redirect to those currently on the road in increasingly heavy traffic.

You’ve identified antagonism but I think you’re under-estimating it. Funds that go to swell private-company profits are wasted funds, as far as funders are concerned. Far better to disrupt (and even destroy) the system, than to keep on going the way we have been. Even in your worst-case scenario, do you really think authors won’t be able to publish their research? They just won’t have to pay more than cost-price to do it.

I’m not sure how helpful the traffic metaphor is. I would suggest many publishers are adding to the congestion and getting them off the road altogether would be for the benefit of all.

Funds that go to swell private-company profits are wasted funds, as far as funders are concerned.

If this is the case, then why does Wellcome, and pretty much every other funder out there, have an IP policy that allows researchers and their institutions to lock up any discoveries via patent and limit their use to those able to pay (i.e., private companies who will use them for profit)? Why are the stories written about the discoveries different from the discoveries themselves?

I’d be careful about describing profits as “wasted funds.” Many non-profits and universities hoard large treasure chests, which they increase largely by investing in profitable companies via stocks and equity. There is a symbiosis here that can’t be ignored. In fact, this post is about a foundation explicitly investing in hopes of generating a return via a for-profit company. I think they are leveraging perceived antagonism to generate returns themselves. Wellcome earned 18.8% returns on their 2016 investments, for example, many of which were in for-profit companies, including petroleum companies, which they’ve been criticized over (and refused to divest from).

I think publication is an attenuated thing. I am publishing this comment, but if I were to publish it somewhere else, it wouldn’t reach as large an audience. Or maybe it would reach a larger audience. Brands, reach, reputation, and other factors affect how someone publishes, and the benefits they receive. The act of publishing is not rare, but publishing in venues that change your career trajectory or improve your reputation remains the goal for most. I’m not sure these venues are adequately supported currently. Industry consolidation is happening very quickly, and some of the best venues are seeing the market contract. What happens when a major journal just goes toes-up? Does that help the career prospects of the scientists who wanted to publish there?

This also brings up the issue of funders diverting funds that might have gone to researchers in order to invest in speculative ventures for financial returns. Even if researchers can still publish, if millions of dollars of research funding is diverted to support speculative publishing ventures, is that a good use of funds for science?

Hi Matthew — the link in your comment yields a 404 file not found result. If you have a correct link, I can update it.

That said, have those early warnings been proven incorrect? We haven’t seen a tumbling of the academic publishing infrastructure due to OA, yet we still remain in an uncertain position. Even some the strongest of OA proponents are expressing their doubts about the methods that have been put into play. If Gold OA is going to be significantly more expensive to productive research institutions than the current system (, or if Green OA results in the collapse of the subscription journal market upon which it relies (, then were those dire warnings wrong?

Food for thought Kent, three comments from recent conference/meetings I attended, where a similar topic and discussion arose:
1) SSP Library Focus Group meeting; with the current political climate in the US, (and to some extent UK with Brexit), all the stakeholders should work together, publishers, librarians and funders, to better address challenges facing the whole research community (there was a strong fear factor, that key vital information such as say climate data may disappear), hence how to collectively work together for a common goal, to keep research data available, and importantly appreciate the role each stakeholder plays in doing this. It was actually suggested if Funders show Publishers a little more love, there might be a better way to get along going forward. Librarians also noted that while they were trying to make data sets and research more open/online, they openly admitted publishers could probably do a better job in assigning DOI’s and Metadata, improving discoverability, and creating sustainable business models for long term preservation and use (the latter was something the said librarians wasn’t comfortable trying to master).
2) R2R Conference workshops, publishers should better understand the changing needs of funders, finds ways to interact more closely, and openly to find some common goals, and ways forward together. As you noted there are some examples of this happening (AAAS/Gates), lets try learn together from these, and discuss more at conferences and meetings, where all opinions and thoughts can be heard.
3) Also R2R, should publishers consider putting a toe in the funding/funder waters, partly to potentially make up shortfalls in say Brexit funding, but also to bring them closer and more aligned with researchers. I know many learned societies and associations do this, but again food for thought in open discussion with peers.

My three cents of comment

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